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Immigrant allies rallying in nationwide day of action

Continue reading Immigrant allies rallying in nationwide day of action

News of police KKK ties stuns residents of Florida town

Residents of the small town of Fruitland Park, Florida have been stunned by an investigative report linking two city police officers with the Ku Klux Klan, the secret hate society that once was violently active in the area.

The violence against African-Americans that permeated the area was more than 60 years ago, when the place was more rural and the main industry was citrus. These days, the community of less than 5,000 residents northwest of Orlando has been infused by the thousands of wealthier, more cosmopolitan retirees in the area. Those who live in the bedroom community, which is less than 10 percent black, have reacted not only with shock, but disgust that officers could be involved with the Klan, the mayor said.

“I’m shocked, very shocked,” said Chery Mion, who works in a Fruitland Park gift shop next door to the mayor’s office. “I didn’t think that organization was still around. Yes, in the 1950s. But this 2014, and it’s rather disconcerting to know.”

Mayor Chris Bell says he heard stories about a Klan rally that took place two years before he arrived in the 1970s, but he has never seen anything firsthand. As recently as the 1960s, many in law enforcement in the South were members but “it’s exceedingly unusual these days to find a police officer who is secretly a Klansman,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.

But five years ago, Ann Hunnewell and her Florida police officer husband knelt in the living room of a fellow officer’s home, with pillowcases as makeshift hoods over their heads. A few words were spoken and they, along with a half-dozen others, were initiated into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, she says.

Ann Hunnewell’s ex-husband, George Hunnewell, was fired, and deputy chief David Borst resigned from the 13-member Fruitland Park Police Department. Borst has denied being a member.

James Elkins, a third officer who Ann Hunnewell says recruited her and her husband, resigned in 2010 after his Klan ties became public.

While the Klan used to be politically powerful in the 1920s, when governors and U.S. senators were among its 4 million members, nowadays it is much less active than other sectors of the radical right and has less than 5,000 members nationwide, Potok said.

“The radical right is quite large and vigorous. The Klan is very small,” he said. “The radical right looks down on the Klan.”

Fruitland Park, though, has been dealing with alleged KKK ties and other problems in the police ranks since 2010, when Elkins resigned after his estranged wife made his membership public.

Last week, residents were told Borst and the Hunnewells had been members of the United Northern and Southern Knights Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, though its presence in their town wasn’t noticeable.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement sent the police chief a report linking the officers to the Klan based on information from the FBI. Both men didn’t return repeated phone messages to their homes, but Borst told the Orlando Sentinel he has never been a Klan member.

Ann Hunnewell — who was a police department secretary until 2010 — told Florida investigators that former Police Chief J.M. Isom asked her and her ex-husband to join the KKK in 2008, trying to learn if Elkins was a member. Isom, though, shortly after Elkins resigned, also quit after he was accused of getting incentive pay for earning bogus university degrees.

Police Chief Terry Isaacs said he took a sworn oath from Isom, who called Ann Hunnewell’s account a lie, and that there was no record of such an undercover investigation.

The disclosure of the officers’ Klan ties harkened back to the 1940s and 1950s when hate crimes against blacks were common. That era was chronicled in the 2012 book “Devil in the Grove.” Then-Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot two of four black men, dubbed the “Groveland Four,” who were dubiously charged with raping a white woman.

“Things have improved, of course,” said Sannye Jones, a local NAACP official who moved to Lake County in the 1960s. “But racism still exists, just not in the same way. People are not as open and not as blatant.”

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Lawsuit filed to stop bullying of LGBT kids in Mississippi school district

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed suit in federal court to stop what it characterized as pervasive anti-LGBT bullying and harassment committed by students — as well as faculty and administrators — in Mississippi’s Moss Point School District.

SPLC filed the suit on behalf of Destin Holmes, a student who says severe harassment forced her to leave her school. She temporarily left the district in March 2012 to be homeschooled after the then-principal at Magnolia Junior High School called her a “pathetic fool” and told her, “I don’t want a dyke in this school.”

In March, the SPLC demanded the district take action to end the bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students but that didn’t happen, a resolution was not reached.

“We are disappointed that the district fails to see the serious harm its deliberate inaction causes its students,” SPLC attorney Anjali Nair said. “District officials who are entrusted with the safety and education of all students not only ignored, dismissed and even blamed victims for the abusive behavior of faculty and other students, they also participated in discriminatory acts.”

During her time at Magnolia Junior High School, students and district staff called Destin “it,” “freak” and “he-she.” Destin, according to the SPLC, heard insults as many as 20 times a day.

She also was denied access to the girls’ restroom by a teacher. Another teacher even refused to allow her to participate in a classroom activity where teams were divided by gender because Destin – according to the teacher – was an “in-between it.”

On the Web …


Texas school district drops challenge to transgender student wearing tux

A South Texas school district has reversed course, saying it will allow a photo of a transgender teen wearing a tuxedo to appear in his high school yearbook.

Jeydon Loredo and his mother had said the school district was not allowing his photograph because it violated “community standards.”

But after a meeting late last week, the La Feria school district agreed to let the photo be used in the yearbook, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the district announced.

The law center had threatened to file a lawsuit if a decision allowing the tuxedo photograph to be included wasn’t made by Nov. 21.

In a telephone interview, Jeydon said he was “pretty happy” about the district’s decision.

“It was just very frustrating, the whole thing. To me, it was just a simple answer that I wanted. But we got the answer. So it’s great, man,” said Jeydon, who is a senior at La Feria High School.

La Feria, a town of about 7,300 residents, is located about 30 miles east of McAllen.

Alesdair Ittelson, an attorney with the law center, said the district’s decision sends “a signal to other school districts that transgender students should be recognized as important members of their communities rather than ostracized and subjected to discrimination. We applaud Jeydon’s courage in standing up for his rights.”

School district Superintendent Raymundo Villarreal Jr. said the resolution “is in the best interest of the student and the school and the community.”

In a statement, the district said Jeydon was never in danger of “being completely excluded from appearing in the portrait section of the high school yearbook.”

“There were discussions between the student, the student’s family and the administration on options affiliated with a dress code, including options which were gender neutral,” according to the statement.

Jeydon’s mother, Stella Loredo, said that during a meeting with Villarreal, she was told that the photograph of her son in a tuxedo “goes against the community standards.”

Villarreal told her that “they were a conservative school and that (outfit) wouldn’t follow the school policy as far as their dress code,” she said.

Stella Loredo said she was told her son’s photograph would be included only if he wore feminine attire, such as a drape or blouse.

“It was frustrating,” she said. “This has never happened in our small town. I kind of expected that it wouldn’t go smoothly. But I’m happy that it has been resolved. And we got just what we wanted,” she said.

In its statement, the district said that dress code issues “can be difficult and complicated. Oftentimes, an administrator is called to balance perceived community standards and individualized requests.”

Ittelson said the district’s action violated Jeydon’s right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment, as well as the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title IX, the law requiring gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding.

Jeydon, his mother and Ittelson appeared before the La Feria school board to appeal the district’s decision. The school board did not take any action.

Jeydon said his friends and classmates were very supportive and he hopes his experience will educate school districts and prevent other students from going through what he experienced.

Jeydon’s case is similar to others around the country in recent years.

In 2010, Constance McMillen successfully challenged a rural Mississippi school district’s policy that prohibited her from bringing her girlfriend to the prom and wearing a tuxedo.

Call to action: Urge Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan to skip right-wing summit

Civil rights activists are encouraging people to ask lawmakers – including a familiar name in Wisconsin – to skip a far right-wing summit set to take place Oct. 11-13.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Human Rights Campaign, are encouraging people to ask U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and others to not attend the Values Voter Summit held by the far-right Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

The FRC has been characterized as a hate group in the progressive community for the organization’s demonizing of gay people and campaign against basic civil liberties for LGBT people. The FRC repeatedly has portrayed gays and lesbians as sick, evil, incestuous, violent and perverted threats to the nation.

And the Values Voter Summit, year after year, has featured politicians, pundits and Christian right leaders who go beyond opposing LGBT equal rights legislation to advocate criminalizing same-sex sex and treating homosexuality as a disease.

Organizers expect Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage to attend and speak at the event.

Brown will join FRC president Tony Perkins on a panel called “The Future of Marriage.”

In addition to the SPLC and HRC, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, GLAAD, People for the American Way Foundation and Faithful America have called on lawmakers to skip the summit.

“Elected officials shouldn’t lend the prestige of their office to hate groups that have a long history of telling incendiary lies about the LGBT community and spreading other forms of bigotry,” said an announcement from the SPLC.

The SPLC provided links to contact lawmakers set to speak at the summit:

Sen. Rand Paul

Sen. Marco Rubio

Sen. Ted Cruz

Sen. Tim Scott

Rep. Paul Ryan

Rep. Randy Forbes

Rep. Michele Bachmann

Rep. Jim Bridenstine

Rep. Louie Gohmert

Rep. Jim Jordan

Rep. Steve King

Rep. Steve Scalise

Rep. Scott Turner

Mississippi town officials sued for denying a permit for gay bar

A woman is suing the leaders of a north Mississippi town, accusing them of conspiring to prevent her from opening a gay bar by denying an application for a business license.

Pat “PJ” Newton filed the federal lawsuit on Oct. 1 against the mayor and several aldermen of Shannon, a town of about 1,700 in Lee County where Newton has been trying to open a cafe and bar called O’Hara’s to cater to the gay community.

The 55-year-old Newton, who is a lesbian, is seeking monetary damages and an order to allow her to open the business as well as attorneys’ fees and court costs.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is representing the Memphis, Tenn., woman in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Aberdeen, Miss.

It says Shannon Mayor Ronnie Hallmark “led a conspiracy to deny Newton a business license” and solicited community opposition to the bar.

The mayor and aldermen did not immediately respond to a phone message left Tuesday at Shannon Town Hall. The lawsuit names six current or former members of the board of aldermen.

The lawsuit says Newton got a state business license and liquor permit and made expensive upgrades to the bar, but was denied a license under the city’s zoning ordinance.

The application was denied in a 4-1 vote on June 4 with the stated reason being that the bar would present a public health and safety hazard, Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer David Dinielli said Tuesday in a phone interview.

“We believe that is an illegitimate reason and pretext for the real reason,” Dinielli said. Dinielli believes the town leaders simply don’t want a gay bar.

Newton said in a phone interview that she first opened a gay bar called O’Hara’s in the same location in Shannon in 1994 and operated it without problems until 1998, when she sold it to take on new business ventures.

The new owners continued to run a gay bar there called “Rumors” until 2010, according to the lawsuit. Rumors was profiled in a 2006 documentary called “Small Town Gay Bar” about the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the rural South.

The parcel of land is zoned as a general commercial district and requires establishments like churches, dog kennels and bars to get a “special exception,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says the mayor told Newton that she had to appear before the aldermen on June 4 to present her plans, which she believed was a technicality to approval. Newton said she was met by a crowd of 30-40 people, including some who presented petitions opposing the bar.

Dinielli said the mayor encouraged at least one person to get signatures for the petitions.

“For over 30 minutes, Aldermen and citizens launched a series of hostile questions and comments directed at Newton,” the lawsuit said. The application was denied.

Bryant Thompson, the lone alderman who had voted to approve the license, was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit because he “declined to move or vote to reconsider the denial” of the application.

Newton said she’s struggling “a little bit” to pay the rent and utilities but she hopes the lawsuit will be successful and she can recoup her losses when the bar opens.

“Of course, I’m in it as long as it takes. I’m not going anywhere,” she told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

On the Web…



Wisconsin forum tackles hate crimes

In an ongoing effort to prevent hate-related crimes like the 2012 Sikh temple shooting, a Wisconsin civil rights committee has heard testimony from experts and law enforcement officials.

The Wisconsin State Advisory Committee, a state board that reports to the federal Commission on Civil Rights, gathered comments and testimony in Madison for a report to be presented to the White House and Congress sometime next year.

The committee first met with Sikh Temple of Wisconsin leaders a few weeks after a gunman walked into the Oak Creek temple on Aug. 5, 2012, and opened fire. Wade Michael Page killed six worshippers and wounded six others, including a police officer, before killing himself. Although FBI investigators never discovered Page’s motive, he had strong ties to the white supremacist movement.

Those invited to speak Thursday included professors and community leaders. Several speakers previewed their testimony for The Associated Press.

Rick Esenberg, the founder of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, urged authorities to avoid haste before labeling a violent crime a hate crime. Overaggressive policing could lead to people being targeted for speech that should be protected, he said.

“I don’t want to see us cross the line into targeting people based on their political views, or enacting legal measures that restrict freedom of speech,” he said.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said his group had counted 600 hate groups in 2000. Last year the number had swelled to 1,000.

Potok said the increase coincided with President Barack Obama being elected in 2008, with Potok speculating the country was experiencing a backlash over societal changes – from the economic downtown to shifts in attitudes about gay marriage.

“What we can say from that is, this too shall pass,” Potok said, citing some citizens’ reactions to the civil rights movements and waves of immigration during the Industrial Revolution.

Elana Kahn-Oren, a director with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said she has seen an anecdotal rise in anti-Semitism in Wisconsin. She noted that six anti-Semitic signs appeared in Algoma in late July.

She suggested the problem was related to the growing polarization of the state, in which discussions about politics and other contentious issues had taken on an increasingly uncivil tone.

Kahn-Oren said one way to improve tolerance was for people to make a special effort to be around those different from themselves, perhaps by buying groceries in different neighborhoods or spending time with people of different religions or sexual orientations.

“We’re changed by people who are different than us. We see they matter,” she said. “You’re less likely to hate when you learn to see the humanity of someone different than you.”

Engagement helps avert backlash against Muslims

In the hours following the Boston Marathon bombings, an outburst of anti-Muslim hate alarmed the nation’s Islamic community.

But a swift, effective response from American Muslims helped to avert a major backlash.

Hate emerged quickly on right-wing media. Calling for the profiling of Muslims, Fox News host Eric Bolling leveled a verbal onslaught against Islamic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., branding him as “the Muslim apologist in Congress” and denouncing him as “very dangerous.”

Days before the suspects in the bombing were identified, Fox News guest commentator Erik Rush sent out tweets blaming Muslims, including one that exhorted “Let’s kill them.” 

Anti-gay Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson, speaking about the bombings on his “700 Club” TV program, trashed the Muslim faith. “Don’t talk to me about religion of peace,” he said. “No way.”

“Even before the bombers were identified we had ideologues of all different types blaming Muslims,” said Mark Potok, who tracks hate-group activity for the Southern Poverty Law Center. He said that he saw an instant uptick in anti-Islamic chatter on online hate sites.

In the hysterical aftermath of the bombings, a bystander tackled a Saudi student who was himself injured in the blast. The New York Post mistakenly identified the bombing victim as a suspect.

Just hours after the horrific incident, a Bangladeshi man was beaten by attackers who called him “a f**king Arab.” The victim was punched in the head and body, resulting in a dislocated shoulder.

Two days after the bombings, a white male shouting anti-Muslim slurs assaulted a mother of Middle Eastern heritage who was wearing a hijab (Islamic headscarf) in Malden, Mass.

After authorities released surveillance photos of the suspected bombers, Internet users, particularly those on the online forum reddit, thought they saw a resemblance between one of the bombing suspects and Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who’d been missing since March 16. News organizations ran with the story without seeking comment from authorities, and reporters overwhelmed Tripathi’s suffering family with interview requests.

When the young man’s body was subsequently found drowned in Providence, apologies poured into the family, including one from the operators of reddit. 

Braced for the worst

In the wake of all the hysteria and Islam-bashing, the nation’s Arab Americans and Muslims were braced for the worst. The Center for American Islamic Relations urged Muslim individuals and Islamic institutions to review advice on security procedures contained in its “Muslim Community Safety Kit,” communications director Ibrahim Hooper told WiG.

But since the identification and killing of bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the capture of his brother and suspected co-conspirator Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it’s been surprisingly quiet on the fringes of the right, according to experts who monitor hate activity.

The relative calm has been a relief not only to Muslims and people of Arabic descent, but also to members of Oak Creek’s Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, where a gunman affiliated with white supremacist groups killed four people and injured six others last August. Outsiders often misidentify Sikhs as Muslims, even though the two groups have no religious affiliation. Muslims, both locally and nationally, condemned the Sikh shooting.

“Our community is still healing from that wound,” said Beant Boparai, a trustee of the temple. He said the temple community has remained vigilant since the attack, with a security officer on the premises even during worship – a concession that fits uncomfortably with his religion’s message of peace and acceptance, Boparai told WiG.

Boparai said the temple experienced another incident just four months ago, when a suspicious man claiming to be a reporter showed up on the premises. The temple’s security guard contacted local police, who found ammunition in the man’s car and took him away.

Boparai said he and other members of his community were praying for the innocent victims of the Boston bombings.

“It’s such a sad thing,” he said. “I see those people who are wounded and their families. They are innocent people they have nothing to do with anything. Why do those people have to go through this? It’s sad.

“I don’t know what direction the world is going in. It is not God who is creating the danger but the human being. This planet could be a heaven if everybody acted right.”

Despite fears of an overwhelming backlash, Muslim civil rights leaders say the anti-Islam reaction has been more muted this time than after other attacks since Sept. 11, which had sparked outbursts of vandalism, harassment and violence. Instead, leaders told The Associated Press they’ve noted a larger, broader chorus of Americans warning against placing collective blame.

The change may only reflect the circumstances of this particular attack. The two suspects are white and from an area of the world, Russia’s turbulent Caucasus region, that unlike the Middle East, Americans know little about. 

But U.S. Muslims also credit a new generation of leaders in their communities with helping keep tempers in check after the attack. Many are the American-born children of immigrants who saw the impact of the 2001 terror attacks on their faith and have strived ever since to build ties with other Americans.

“There seems to be a much more mature, sophisticated response to this tragedy than in the past 12 years,” said Wajahat Ali, 32, an attorney and co-author of “Fear, Inc.,” a report by the Center for American Progress on the strategies of anti-Muslim groups in the United States. “We really do see a palpable shift.”

American Muslim groups that only a decade ago were more inward-looking than publicly engaged have pushed back in a more confident way.

As they have after any national tragedy since Sept. 11, Muslim groups issued a flurry of statements condemning the attack, organized blood drives and thanked law enforcement for protecting the country. The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, in the city’s Roxbury section, held vigils and formed medical teams to help with the wounded. Imam Suhaib Webb, who leads the mosque, posted a black ribbon and banner across his Facebook page with the statement, “We’re Bostonians — We mourn with the city.”

“I offered my home to house stranded runners, spread information on fundraising for the victims through social media, and attended a candlelight vigil in Harvard Yard,” said Zeba Khan, who lives in Cambridge. “That is exactly where I am focusing my attention – on the victims and on the safety of my neighbors and my city.”

Non-Muslims echoed the message. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in his Sunday sermon after the tragedy, “The crimes of the two young men must not be the justification for prejudice against Muslims and against immigrants.” Online, a post by comedian and actor Patton Oswalt went viral, calling the attack “beyond religion or creed or nation.”

“When you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will,’” Oswalt wrote.

Muslims monitoring their own

The Boston explosions also inadvertently underscored a point Muslims have been making for years: More are monitoring their own communities for signs of extremism.

Leaders of the Islamic Society of Boston, a mosque in Cambridge that is affiliated with Webb’s mosque in Roxbury, said Tamerlan Tsarnaev occasionally attended Friday prayers, but had protested the community’s moderate approach. Family members said Tamerlan was steered toward a radical strain of Islam by a friend they didn’t know, began opposing the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and turned to websites and literature claiming the CIA was behind the Sept. 11 attacks and Jews controlled the world.

According to leaders of the Cambridge mosque, Tamerlan once stood up during a sermon and objected when a preacher told worshippers it would be appropriate to celebrate national holidays such as Thanksgiving. He said that went against Islam. A couple of months later, Tamerlan also objected when a preacher praised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He called the speaker a hypocrite and accused of him contaminating people’s minds. In response, worshippers shouted at him and told him to leave the service.

The mosque offered these accounts in a detailed written statement released after Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar was apprehended.

“Trust me – no group of people wants to stamp out radicalism more than Muslims, who have seen it soil their faith and define its image,” said Khurram Dara, 24, author of “The Crescent Directive,” a well-known e-book urging U.S. Muslims to more fully integrate into American society. “They’re vigilant of radicalism in their communities.”

The message was driven home by a case in Canada that followed the Boston bombings. Investigators there said they thwarted a plan by two men, guided by al-Qaida in Iran, to derail a train between New York City and Montreal because a local Muslim leader alerted them to the threat. The leader, Muhammad Robert Heft, said the father of one of the two suspects had come forward with concerns about his son’s intolerant religious views.  A 2011 study of American Muslim terrorism by the Triangle Center for Terrorism and Homeland Security found U.S. Muslims were the largest single source of tips to law enforcement that year for terrorist plots.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Pro-gun groups helped with anti-gay mailers

The Southern Poverty Law Center alleged on April 3 that two pro-gun groups conspired with another group to create political mailers that used a gay couple’s copyrighted engagement photo to attack candidates in the 2012 Colorado Republican primaries.

The SPLC made the allegations in documents filed in a federal lawsuit. The civil rights group wants to add the pro-gun groups – the National Association for Gun Rights and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners – to its lawsuit against Public Advocate of the United States.

The groups, according to the SPLC, used the photo of Brian Edwards and Thomas Privitere without the couple’s or photographer’s permission.

The mailers were a way for Public Advocate, which has been designated as an anti-gay hate group by the SPLC, to insert itself into the Colorado primaries. For the two pro-gun groups, which are based in Colorado, the mailings were part of broader attacks against candidates.

“This scheme not only shows the utter disregard these groups have for private property, but also the hatred and discrimination that LGBT people must still face in society,” said Anjali Nair, SPLC staff attorney. “There should be no doubt that we will aim to ensure everyone is held accountable for their involvement in this attack against innocent people.”

According to the SPLC, Dudley Brown, of the Rocky Mountain group, proposed the mailers in an April 2012 email to Public Advocate, describing how “[t]he gay lobby smells blood in the water, and if some pro-gay legislators don’t lose their primaries, I fear Colorado will tumble [i.e., pass legislation authorizing civil unions] in the 2013 session.”

He added: “What I propose is that PA [Public Advocate] pay for mailing. … My staff and I would do all the work, but we’d want PA to sign off, put its name on the dotted line, and pay for the mailings. I would counsel mailing slick and glossies, with the ‘two men kissing’ photo.”

The mailers featured the couple’s engagement photo. But the New York City skyline was removed from the background and replaced with snowy and rural backgrounds suggestive of Colorado.

In one mailer, bold words on a red background were added to the picture of the couple kissing: “State Senator Jean White’s idea of ‘Family Values?’”

“It’s shocking that so many groups worked together to defile a photo that meant so much to me,” Privitere said.

The couple has received hate messages since the mailers were produced. Internet postings have said that the couple deserves to go to hell and to be killed, and that any children they may have would be better off dead.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, charges that the defendants misappropriated the likeness and personalities of the couple. It also charges that they infringed on photographer Kristina Hill’s exclusive right to the photo, which is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Rising threat | Explosive growth of ‘patriot groups’ in Wisconsin and nation

With the wave of enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s promise of hope and change came a second wave of conspiracy-minded, right-wing “patriot groups” that are growing in number and militancy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, headquartered in Montgomery, Ala., recently reported surging numbers of anti-government patriot groups that remind those at the civil rights organization of the mid-1990s, when Democrat Bill Clinton was president. That was the era of the Brady Bill, the assault weapon ban, and the religious cult showdown in Waco, Texas.

SPLC documented 149 active patriot or militia groups in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. In 2011, SPLC identified 1,274 patriot groups. In 2012, the number climbed 7 percent to 1,360, including 321 militias. The number of patriot groups today exceeds by more than 500 the high-water number in the 1990s.

SPLC publishes annual counts and analyses of U.S. extremist groups. The counts include active, established groups – not lone “keyboard commandos,” said Heidi L. Beirich, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project.

Patriot groups are defined by the SPLC as opposing a “New World Order” and promoting anti-government doctrine and conspiracy theories. 

Experts theorize that the revival of far-right, anti-government radicalism has been spurred by the economic recession, a Democratic administration, the first black president and intensifying debate about immigration, the environment and gun control. Accompanying the rise in militia groups are increasing calls for secession, nullification and civil war.

“The year that Obama was elected, we started to see these groups rise and rise and rise,” said Beirich, whose department consists of 15 staffers who read far-right publications, monitor websites, track events and activities and collect police reports.

There were 30 active anti-government groups in Wisconsin in 2012 – that’s a slight increase from the 26 identified in 2011. Several, including groups in Appleton and Milwaukee, are affiliates of the John Birch Society, an anti-communism, limited-government organization founded in 1958 by, among others, Fred Koch. The SPLC list also includes the Constitution Party in Milwaukee, the Northwoods Patriots in Eagle River, We the People, Southeast Wisconsin Volunteers, Northeast Wisconsin Militia, Badger State Volunteers and the Tenth Amendment Center.

Some of these groups self-describe as patriot groups or militias while others dispute the SPLC classification.

Several Wisconsin militia websites, for example, contain lists of weapons, ammunition and survival gear that members should have and urge visitors “to protect our property and families by any means necessary.”

But a post for the Badger State Volunteers states, “We are Constitutionalists, survivalists, self-sustainers, and educators plain and simple. We are NOT a religious group! …We are NOT a racially motivated group! We do not care about your color. We only care that you believe in the preservation of The Constitution of the United States of America.”

Far-right universe

The anti-government crusade is one of three basic ideological movements in the far-right universe. The others are the fundamentalist movement that consists of Christian identity groups that fuse religious fundamentalism with white supremacy ideas and the racist or white supremacy movement, according Arie Perlinger, director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and author of the recent study “Challengers From the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far Right.”

The number of fundamentalist and white supremacist groups also remains at a near-record high. An expansion of hate group numbers began in 2000, a response to the country’s changing demographics.

“What is interesting about the hate group numbers is they were climbing at a rapid rate. …They’ve darn near doubled over the last decade,” said Beirich.

SPLC maintains a “hate map” on its website, a page where browsers can click on a state and see its number of extremist groups, as well as a list: 82 in California, 53 in Georgia, 62 in Texas, a handful in Maine and Vermont and 11 in Wisconsin, up from eight last year. The organizations are described as neo-Nazi, Christian identity, black separatist, racist skinhead, anti-gay and KKK. In Wisconsin, they can be found – perhaps not easily – in Mountain, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, New Berlin, Monroe and Shawano.

Beirich stressed that patriot groups are “entirely different” from hate groups, but “we often see people move between these groups.”

None of the groups on the far right advocate equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. Some advocate death sentences for gays, or internment or deportation.

“In general,” Beirich said, “all the groups we monitor are anti-LGBT. Unfortunately that is the dominant mode of thinking” on the far right.

She added that not all of the far right extremist organizations advocate violence, but some do.

And, said Perlinger, “since 2007, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of attacks and violent plots originating on the far right of American politics.” Perlinger said that right-wing violence from 2000-2011 surpassed right-wing violence in the 1990s by a factor of four.

His research shows that militia group attacks result in higher numbers of injuries and fatalities than attacks by other right-wing extremist groups, and militia groups are more likely than other extremist groups to use explosives and fire arms.

Domestic terror

In another report, the Congressional Research Service identified more than two dozen domestic terrorist incidents since September 2001.

The surge in patriot groups prompted SPLC president and CEO J. Richard Cohen to write to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano with a warning.

Cohen began with a reminder that six months before the October 1994 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, the SPLC wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno about the growing threat of domestic terrorism.

“Today,” Cohen wrote, “we write to express similar concerns. In the last four years, we have seen a tremendous increase in the number of conspiracy-minded anti-government groups as well as in the number of domestic terrorist plots. As in the period before the Oklahoma City bombing, we now also are seeing ominous threats from those who believe that the government is poised to take their guns.”

The SPLC asked the federal officials to establish an interagency task force to assess “the adequacy of resources devoted to responding to the growing threat of non-Islamic domestic terrorism.”

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC and the author of the organization’s recent analysis on extremist groups, said, “We are seeing a real and rising threat of domestic terrorism as the number of far-right anti-government groups continues to grow at an astounding pace. It is critically important that the country take this threat seriously. The potential for deadly violence is real and clearly rising.”